Santa Cruz sailor Malcolm Brown and the rest of the crew of Scott Hipsley’s Santa Cruz YC-based Melges 24 Wild Thing had a close call that thankfully ended well. During the second run of a double windward-leeward SCORE race off Santa Cruz on Sunday in a heavy sea state and breeze building into the 30s, Brown was on the leeward side of the boat when it wiped out. Another crewmember fell across the cockpit in the broach, knocking Brown into the 52° water for what would prove to be 20-25 minutes about a mile offshore halfway between the Wharf mark and Mile Buoy.
"The boat started dragging sideways," said Brown, who added that he didn’t stop coughing up seawater until 36 hours after the incident. "I was tangled in the main and spinnaker sheets and the boat drifted over me — I was being dragged underwater."
Thanks to some quick thinking, instinctual response, or both, Brown put his hands above his head, and the sheets obliged, slipping off of him, and thus freeing him from the boat.
"The good thing was I wasn’t being dragged anymore," he said. "The bad thing was I wasn’t attached to the boat anymore. One of the guys scrambled for a heaving line that’s kept on the transom, but by the time he got to it, they were too far away."
Brown said he figured it would be awhile before Wild Thing could get back upwind to his position — the remaining five crew designated a spotter, called 911 from a cell phone, and ended up having to cut the kite away. So Brown tightened the cuffs of his foulies to maintain as much warmth as possible.
"At that point, the B fleet was rounding the weather mark, but they were all jibing to head inside," he said. "I was thinking, don’t jibe, don’t jibe, don’t jibe. My drift would have taken me fairly close to the R/C boat, but it was a ways away. I knew they couldn’t see me after awhile, because I couldn’t see any of them; all I could see were the sails. It was definitely a struggle to stay calm."
He said part of what helped him was the fact that the crew was accustomed to the windy conditions off Santa Cruz and had all sailed Hawaii and coastal races together. Yet when Wild Thing made its way back upwind, it passed Brown 100 yards away and none of the crewmembers were able to spot him. Another boat passed some 50 yards away and also didn’t see him. Finally, Hipsley and the remaining crew were able to locate Brown.
After getting him ashore and warmed up, the crew started the process of debriefing on what went on and what they could have done better. Brown said he used a brand new Gill Sport Vest which worked well, but he’d forgotten to transfer his whistle from his old PFD.
"We started thinking about what else would have been nice to carry to increase my visibility in the water," he said. "I picked up a couple waterproof handheld flares that fit in my pocket. We talked about having a handheld radio. The problem with that is that it relies on someone hearing it: the VHF antenna on Wild Thing had snapped off in the wipeout, so the race committee would have been my only hope in the short term."
Brown said that afterward, everyone on the boat went home and inflated their inflatable PFDs; one sailor’s stayed inflated for all of three minutes.
"It was one of those times when it turned out well, so everyone was joking around, the way you do after something serious like that happens," he said. "They were happy to have me back aboard the boat and I was really happy to be there! I didn’t really feel the cold until after I was out of the water, and I’m glad I didn’t have to find out what it would be like to be out there any longer. Basically, everybody kept their heads on, and did a lot of the right things."